Sarah Drew on Writing ‘Reindeer Games Homecoming’ and Who Inspired Her Rom-Com Lead

Sarah Drew stars in Reindeer Games Homecoming, which will premiere on Saturday, November 12 at 8/7c as part of Lifetime’s “It’s a Wonderful Lifetime.” The actress also wrote the script and executive produced the film.

MacKenzie Graves (Sarah Drew, Grey’s Anatomy) is a brilliant, competitive, crossword puzzle loving Biology teacher in Vermont who recently lost her father, beloved fire chief and the heart of the town’s holiday fundraising tradition “The Reindeer Games.” Every year since his death, she competes with her dad’s former team, a group of colorful retired firefighters, to win the Games and keep his tradition alive. The holiday however, her world is rocked when fading Hollywood star, and Mac’s high school crush, Chase Weston (Justin Bruening, Grey’s Anatomy), comes home for Christmas to visit his pregnant sister and nephew and is begrudgingly roped into participating in the Games. When the opportunity to compete against her former mega crush arises, Mac is determined to show him up and win the Kris Kringle Cup at all costs. As the competition heats up, so does the spark between Mac and Chase, and Chase soon finds himself eager to not only win the games, but also win her heart as well. Brian Sills also stars.

We had an amazing conversation about the world of storytelling, who inspired the character of Mac, reuniting with Justin Bruening, the joyful message of the film, holiday traditions, and so much more. Keep reading for all the details!

I have to start off with the fact that this is your writing debut. I have followed your career and I’m so happy to see you taking on this role. Were there any inspirations when it came to writing this project? Or any reason, in particular, you wanted to do a holiday type of movie?
Sarah Drew: So I was shooting Twinkle All the Way and I had such a blast shooting that holiday movie, and while we were on set, we were all kind of talking about how fun it would be to write our own, pitch our own, and get our own things out there. I felt really inspired while working on that movie, and I got home and I wrote out an outline for this. I pitched it to Stephanie and Margret, who were the two producers on that, who are my producers also on Reindeer Games. I was assuming I would pitch it to them and then say, “Maybe we should hire a writer,” and they basically said, “No, you go home, buy Final Draft and write it because it’s so clearly in your head and we believe that you are capable of doing this, and we think you should do it.” So that was a really beautiful and empowering moment, and I went home, I bought Final Draft, and I had the first draft of the script in like three weeks.

Photo credit: Petr Maur

Oh my gosh, that’s incredible. Did the whole writing process make you feel like this is something you really want to pursue more going forward in your career?
Absolutely, the whole process. I’m already in the midst of a few other writing projects right now. It’s a whole other world of storytelling that is activating on all levels. But I found that some of these scenes, especially either the emotional scenes or the romantic scenes, it’s almost like when you’re writing, you’re putting yourself in a blanket of love or you’re sinking into an emotion — like, I’m crying while I’m reading the scene in the chapel and I’m gushing while I’m writing the scene on the porch. It’s really satisfying and a really, really fun process. So I definitely plan to do a lot more.

That’s so interesting because as an audience member, I’m feeling those same exact emotions while watching it. It’s so funny to think that you’re feeling the same way as you’re writing it, which makes complete sense.
I mean, I think it also helps that I’m an actor and I’m like, a very emotional being. And so, when something feels good as I’m writing it, it feels honest, feels authentic, and feels like the way humans would talk to each other and takes a journey in a way that feels really emotionally satisfying, I can tell when something feels good and when something doesn’t feel good. I’ve spent 20 years of my life reading a million scripts, auditioning for things, being at a million sets, and finding the way through different scenes and through different pieces of dialogue. So in some ways just by nature of having all of that experience it makes the step into the writing process a lot smoother.

You’re also an executive producer for the movie. Can you talk to me about taking on that role as well and how it happened?
Yeah, I mean, the way that this whole thing happened is I wrote this script, my producers were pitching it out, COVID happened, and then I kind of had let go of it. I hadn’t touched it in a year and a half or something like that. I hadn’t touched it since December of 2019 and then it was like March 2021 when I heard from my producers, saying, “They want to make Reindeer Games at Lifetime as part of a two-picture deal with you executive producing and starring in two Christmas movies.” So it all kind of came as one package, so there was no chance of me not being an executive producer on this one.

Petr Maur

But yeah, it’s the first time because I’ve produced before, I produced Indivisible, but this is my first time building something from the ground up and really being the main voice, the main creative voice behind something, but I had an incredible collaborative team. I had a director who basically shared my brain, producers and an executive, who all were on the same page of just wanting to bring my vision to life. I think we all collaborated really well together and worked really well together, but it was a very sweet experience. I feel like I’ve been very spoiled on this one as my first writing gig because my voice was treated with such care and my perspective was treated with such care and such honor. So, it made for a really beautiful and I mean, challenging at times, but really beautiful and nurturing environment for me as a burgeoning writer.

Yeah, it’s so important to use your voice, especially in this industry. It’s so crucial.
Oh yeah, it’s like a lady party at Lifetime. I love it. To go onto a set and be like, “I’m surrounded by women, all these women are super excited to support my vision. They’re ready to go to bat for me when any kind of crisis arise,” I felt very nurtured, which is what happens when you have women in leadership.

Reindeer Games Homecoming, obviously, serves as an on-screen reunion between you and Justin, but what I loved about it is we’re getting to see such a different dynamic for both of you to play off of each other with. Can you tell me about making it that fresh relationship rather than doing the same old thing or revisiting your former characters?
Yeah, I mean, well, these two characters are just two very specific individual characters that I wrote on the page. I wasn’t thinking April and Matthew are going to make this movie together. I wanted to create a protagonist in a holiday movie that was practical, smart, and kind of uninterested in the nonsense of life, but immediately deep, fun, and vibrant. I think, anytime I can add layers of humanity to a character that I play, I want to do that. So when I got to write this character, I was digging much deeper and I think what was really fun for Justin in playing this role is that he could relate to so much about the character just by nature of being an actor in this industry.

Petr Maur

But then we also gave him the opportunity to be funny and pull out some of these comedic chops, which he has but people don’t often allow him to do. He’s usually the romantic lead, or he’s in drama land or romance land, but to be able to kind of marry all of those different pieces of who he is as an artist was a really, really fun process. I think, Chase isn’t like, just a nice guy like Matthew’s just kind of a nice guy, right? Chase has some grit, he’s got some insecurity. He’s got some fun to him in a way that Matthew kind of didn’t have as much. Mac is different than April too, I love how unapologetic she is. So putting those two personalities together, I just thought it would be a really fun dynamic.

I love how you just described creating your character. We need more people writing smart, strong female leads, because sometimes they’re just one dimensional or based on stereotypes, so it’s refreshing.
Well also, in a film where you only have 82 minutes or 84 minutes to tell a whole story, it’s hard to find all of those layers and really communicate a well-rounded person with history, depth, insecurity, hopes, and all of those things. Mac in a lot of ways is kind of designed after my mom. She was my high school biology and AP biology teacher. She’s an incredibly brilliant scientist and got her Ph.D. at UVA, she went to Harvard undergrad, and she thought about going into the medical field but chose to go into scientific research instead. Then when I was entering eighth grade, she decided to make a big career change and go into teaching, and she was an incredible teacher, just could make anybody excited about science.

Petr Maur

I know that because I witnessed her as a teacher but also just the letters of past students that stay in her life, that talk, have gone on to do incredible things, that continue to stay in touch with her because not only was she brilliant at what she did, but she cared about the hearts and minds of these individual human beings every year that she worked in this industry. That’s just who she is at her core and she’s also practical. She’s like, “I’m too busy thinking about all kinds of stuff to worry about doing my hair or to wear heels. That’s not interesting to me. I’m much more interested in solving this X, Y, and Z science issue, or doing a crossword puzzle in my spare time to keep my brain active.” So she’s just such a vibrant person, and I thought this would be a fun rom-com lead.

I’m a firm believer that everything I watch can have some sort of message or take away from the characters or story. Since you wrote the film, was there anything you resonated with after the whole experience that you had not previously thought of?
There were moments in scenes that when we started playing them, I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s so cool.” When Justin and I were shooting that final scene, all of a sudden, Brian, he, and I came together, we’re like, “We’re witnessing Mac and Chase’s past, present, and future in this one scene.” I just got chills. I hadn’t intended to create that theme, the like whole theme of the story and the way he — I don’t want to spoil everything but I hadn’t intended to tie it up quite like that. But as we were playing it, the way the things that Justin brings, he’s such a talented actor, and there’s so many colors and so much depth that’s happening all the time that I wrote a scene, right? Then we’re playing it and I’m like, “I just saw them as high school kids and then I saw them in the present moment, and then I saw them planning for their future,” and noticing how they’re going to navigate their future, which was just such a delightful thing to discover in the moment that we were shooting it.

Petr Maur

But for me, from the beginning, the movie was always about how important it is to have people in our lives who know us, see us, and love us. That is, for me, the biggest, most important message of this movie and I wanted to tell it in a way that was funny, charming, alive, and moving, is you cannot do this life thing alone. You need people and it doesn’t have to be the family that you’re born into, it can be your chosen family, but you need a few good people who know you, love you well, really see you, and can speak truth into your life. If you have that, nothing else matters. When I watch Reindeer Games, and I’ve seen it now a 1,000 times in all of its iterations, I go on a really joyful journey that affirms the importance of community, relationship, and caring for one another in the midst of grief, in the midst of ambition, the pursuit of dreams, and all of those things. I come back to like, there is joy and love in every frame of the movie and you just smile the whole way through. So that’s what I was hoping to accomplish and that’s what I feel when I watched the movie.

I can’t think of a holiday where I’m not sitting around the TV with my family, watching something that we can all enjoy together. Why do you think that is such a big tradition? I feel like the holidays are not complete without those movies or shows because people resonate with the characters and want that feel good memory.
I mean, I think people are hungry for community, honestly, and family, however, you want to define family. We can call our group of friends, family. We can call the people that we work with, family. We can call our family, family. There’s a lot of drama and a lot of big feelings that arise at the time in our culture for two weeks out of the year when everything shuts down and everybody gets to go and be with their family, whoever their family is, and sometimes going to be with family is stressful; the ones that you were born into is extremely stressful and stuff comes up, sometimes it’s facing the fact that you’re celebrating something very big without a family member who you’ve lost, and that brings up a lot of grief and it opens it cracks the heart wide open.

This time of year cracks the heart wide open and forces us to engage with either our sense of community or our loneliness and I think a lot of people are lonely right now. And so, watching these movies, makes them feel hugged, cozy, and like a part of something and it’s a longing. We have that longing to feel that coziness, connection, and that ability to be seen, to be loved, and to be embraced. I think people can’t get enough of those movies because that’s what those movies provide.

When the holidays roll around, is there a list of movies or shows that you and your family feel like it’s not the holidays unless you watch?
Yes, well, Elf is a big one for us. I love While You Were Sleeping, one of my favorites. If you could see, the character of Saul in my movie was a little shout-out to While You Were Sleeping. That’s one is my absolute faves and my mom’s favorite movie of all time. So yeah, Elf is a big one and actually there’s this new British show called, The Goes Wrong Show, that is absolutely hilarious. Their second season, I’m very upset, it’s no longer available and I’ve looked everywhere and I can’t find it, but they have a nativity episode that my family has literally watched 9,000 times since it came out last year and shared it with everyone we could possibly think of to share it with.

Petr Maur

And so, I have to figure out how I’m gonna get my hands on that nativity episode because that’s now a tradition for us. It was based on a Broadway show called, The Play That Goes Wrong, and they made a TV show out of it, and it’s the most hilarious show. My kids can basically recite every single line. It’s like farcical, slapstick, a group of community theater actors putting together a show in front of an audience, and everything goes wrong, it’s hilarious. But there is a nativity episode that is — you’re just like almost throwing up, you’re laughing so hard. Anyway, we like to laugh. We like to laugh at Christmas.

Lastly, is there a tradition or one thing that really sets you off for the holiday season and would not be the same without?
Well, it doesn’t set me off, but I can tell you about what my favorite tradition is because it’s unique to my little family. When my son, Micah, turned five, he said the only thing he wanted for Christmas was to be Santa Claus. So we bought him a whole Santa suit and we invited all the neighborhood kids over, and we decorated cookies. Then our neighbor brought over her little red wagon, decorated it with lights, all the kids dressed up like elves and we went around the neighborhood delivering the cookies, knocking on the doors, and delivering so that he could be Santa. We do that with our neighbors and some family friends every year now. Since 2020, we’ve done decorating ornaments so now we paint ornaments but then also make these little packages of treats, and now we Christmas carol along with it. So we go from house to house, Christmas carol, and deliver these boxes of decorated ornaments that the kids have done. And so, that is like an essential, very important holiday tradition that we do now. It’s so fun, it’s really one of my all-time favorite moments of the year.